There was a time when listening to a Jefre Cantu-Ledesma album was the musical equivalent of living by the side of the highway. Such was the feel of the music – jagged, screeching tones spiraling into infinity, atonal madness threatening to swallow you up; the occasional calm before the next typhoon of sound. He experimented with different frequencies that landed somewhere between grinding and screaming, pushes them against ceilings of sound until the effect was overwhelming, if not world destroying.
In sudden relief, more pleasant, reserved tones would appear on his albums, sounding even better when compared to the invasive sounds that came before. His album “Conversations With Myself” in 2012 is like the eye of the storm, an anomaly of rich synthetic gurgle and melancholic consistency, a feeling that sustains itself across the album.
On “Love is a Stream” in 2010, the artist arranged a wildly shifting array of shoegaze distortion and soupy synth work that would challenge anyone daring enough to enter its fray. If the listener ever forgot about the music, a piercing tone would aggressively remind them that it was still there. The record was on the edge of listenability, verging on the kind of atonal noise work that a small group of heady art scenes enjoy, probably for very different reasons than the way most people interact with and digest the musical canon. In comparison, “Tracing Back the Radiance” is digestible for almost anyone, even your grandmother who only listens to Sinatra.
Light tones inhabit the universe of “Tracing Back the Radiance.” Combining live instrumentation with spectral soundscapes, it’s exactly the sort of record you could forget about or, if you’re in the right mood, pay really close attention to. The album is split into three parts: the 21 minute “Palace of Time,” the 5 minute “Joy,” and the 15 minute “Tracing Back the Radiance.” Throughout the tracks, you could, perhaps, get into your bed and drift off between states of sleeping and waking, or start stretching and stare at the wall. You could study or have a conversation. It really doesn’t matter, because the album, like the best ambient music, invites you to participate in many different layers of listening, from total mindlessness to intense observation.
The fact that Cantu-Ledesma has eased into such a serene landscape with his music suggests an organic journey from chaos to peace. The circling maelstrom of his earlier work offers up narratives of a chaotic world that, even with all its crowded streets and mad money grabs, eventually sets into a peaceful time. His albums, no matter how chaotic, seem to settle back into a natural peace, one that contemplates deep states of mind and communes with nature, such as on “Wild Moon and Sea,” one of the last few tracks on his album “Love is a Stream.”
Such is the sense when, after spending enough time in the city, you return to a peaceful slice of nature, allowing yourself to drop your thoughts and move with the rhythm of a forest or a mountain stream. The organic quietness, the soft, slow movement of nature’s cycles, and the absence of movement can almost feel baffling in contrast to human cities. In a moment like this, quietness can suddenly feel like less of a luxury and more of a certainty, as if the world naturally settled back into these near-static states. Ideas of patience and the “natural course of things,” which feel foreign in a bustling city, suddenly seem clear. The natural world is a perfect analog to ambient music because it invites those same layers of engagement.
The idea, of course, with ambient music, is to suggest a feeling. It is like a wallpaper that we paint onto our environments, enough to have an effect on our perceptions but not invasive enough to make us listen. It can be actively listened to if you try, or can as easily be forgotten about; allowed to slide off and become part of the environment, until the song ends and you realize that a part of your world has ceased to exist. In this way, ambient music is like a decoration, or a plant in the corner of the room: we forget it’s there because it has integrated itself into our consciousness.
Ambient music has, for better or worse, fractured like so many genres do. There is the cinematic arrangements of Stars of the Lid, the spiraling epics of Eluvium, or the pure tones of artists such as Lawrence English and Kyle Bobby Dunn. Cantu-Ledesma’s work has landed him in a category all his own, though on this album he seems to be returning to the core of what ambience is: a soundscape of contemplation, a mixture of beauty and dread that pivots on subtly shifting elements of texture and mood.
The best description for “Tracing Back the Radiance” is probably something like “circling ambience.” You get the sense that all the elements of the track are revolving around each other, whether it’s a rising synth tone, a short piano fill, or a shuffling drum. It gives you the feeling of a system in motion, like the solar system, which changes over time yet repeats the same pattern over and over again. Subtly, ever subtly, systems like these change. Piano and violin, among other instruments, rise and fall like planets and ecosystems in the grand scale of time. Nothing is in a hurry or out of place on “Palace of Time,” which languidly moves on and on towards a mysterious and unknowable future.
Brian Eno has done similar work to this his whole career, creating what has become known as a generated music. He records instruments, synths, tones, and noise, then sets it to play out in an infinite loop that changes unpredictably over time. “Tracing Back the Radiance” may not be generated in the same way as Eno’s work, but it retains much of the same feelings. As it echoes organic systems and circular movements, it invites the listener behind the curtain for a second; a curtain that reveals the constant death and renewal of life.
“Joy” is brief in the album’s context, which seems appropriate considering it dangerously flirts with rhythm on a vibraphone. It’s like the brief excitement of activity in an otherwise and restful day, one where small groups of people relax on a hillside if they are even there it all. The title track, after all, feels like it could be playing out in some post ( or pre) -human restoration of the natural world. Time is slow again, perhaps because no one is taking account of it. The song’s electro-acoustic hum, interspersed with occasional sparkles, jingles, and vibrations, moves somewhere behind the mind, again inviting us to dig into the layers of the world to see what we might find. We may discover that the mind and the world are not as separate as we might think.